Past Master

John Haber
in New York City

Gerhard Richter

I hardly know what to call Gerard Richter's retrospective. But I know somehow that I have to reach for a name, for work so beautiful and so perilously familiar.

A postscript ten years later still has him knocking me off my feet. Once again, as he looks back on the history of abstraction, he repeats his own history. He sustains the present by a battle with the past that brings its strategies newly alive. Just try to give them a name.

What hit me?

Richter has all the trappings of irony. His landscapes have the photorealist panache of Richard Estes or Chuck Close, but the photographs they evoke are blurry. No one could mistake these paintings for a window onto reality. Gerhard Richter's 925-1 STRIP (Marian Goodman, 2012)For that matter, no one could mistake photography for such a window once he is done. In his abstractions, meanwhile, he applies the gestures of all-over painting, but with a squeegee.

Call work like this all-over painting? Not when underpainting stands so ready to erupt from the central channel. An outpouring of paint? Not when the layered surface attests to an almost glacial care. Process art, then? Not when a squeegee effaces its traces.

So forget the classy conceptual categories. Slate grays? Not when the metal support and layered oils create a texture that puts that metaphor on trial. So avoid metaphors. Monochromes? Not when color fills the eye.

Abstraction? Not while the mind, like the painted surface, cry out in denial. Something unique, then? Not when Richter has deliberately repeated himself for so long—and indeed one no longer knows if he quotes abstraction or his own confrontation with it. So an artist's long personal history? But one no longer knows if the history is his own or Modernism's. Has this history even safely entered the past?

The viewer's dilemma instead? Perhaps, but call it the puzzle of now having to confront my own history, too. Richter's painting refuses the avant-garde baggage of self-expression, but not a personal signature and a relationship to a larger culture. Irony and beauty may do battle, but that just gives them a way to live together quite comfortably. Modernism's old foes become Postmodernism's best of friends. It is the postmodern paradox.

It makes him a virtuoso, equally at home in photorealism and abstraction. He can comment on painting like a formalist, but from a distance that a postmodernist would envy. His color, clarity, and gesture have influenced even a photographer like Thomas Struth. And he can do it all without succumbing to sarcasm or dismissal. Art and irony still matter, because they get along together after all.

Postmodernism's heated pool

A 2001 gallery show held an old subject of his—near monochromes. Here slate grays again wipe across a surface. Below lie bright colors, as seemingly random as only non-geometric composition can be. They accentuate the coarse-grained fabric and metal sheets used as ground. Paint reflects on its materials, just as Clement Greenberg might demand of Jackson Pollock. Yet the reflections and materials alike have a commercial veneer.

So why are these so gorgeous, and how can paint still matter so much? In Richter's hand, canvas grain adds a barely palpable texture, metal an eerie sheen. His thick, almost casual flow of paint leaves small pools to collect light where the gray sinks down. As one steps back, color appears even more strongly, like rich valleys in the stark landscape. Gray and ground announce uniformity of surface. The pools refuse it, like a place for the eye to bathe.

The paintings depend on clear, almost mechanical layering. Only the layers themselves, optically and physically, undermine each other and themselves. Painting becomes a window or mirror after all, but a clouded glass that represents its shine. So what if Richter pulls tricks with mirrors? One appreciates them all the more from seeing the mirror as one more part of the trick. He makes one see modern art as object of attack and yet in his own image.

If that give and take between Modernism and Postmodernism seems never-ending, where exactly did it start, and where can one even begin? Critics have put one movement after another on both sides of the fence. When Julian Schnabel made his film about Andy Warhol, he could have been wondering at the place of both. Neo-Expressionism struck at gesture but also reveled in it. Before that, Minimalism made modern sculpture impossible—while reviving its geometry, its refusal of a pedestal, and even something of its grandeur. And so on.

Perhaps Serge Guilbaut had it right when he spoke of New York's "stealing" modern art, only the chain of thefts began before Abstract Expressionism—and has never ended. And that adds yet another dilemma. How long has anyone had to agonize over painting to get there? How long before a painter's sharp eye, appetite for self-criticism, and unsparing wit gain the experience to turn flippancy into irony. And how much longer, in turn, is that possible to maintain? How long before beauty turns into sentiment and irony into just one more art institution?

At the Museum of Modern Art, one has the chance to find out. Irony once meant not the cheap jokes of Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, but ambiguity and self-reflection, and it can again. Amid Biennials like shopping plazas, with computer simulations alongside video art and everything in between, he can still look current. Then again, it took him years before he could pull off. He painted a cow before Andy Warhol made one into wallpaper, but first he had to learn to distinguish beautiful from painterly, reflection from nostalgia, and irony from cleverness. At his retrospective, one hardly notices when the thrill starts to kick in, and by then it risks vanishing.

Too clever by half

Richter's retrospective covers almost forty years and two hundred works. It turns out that his ideas came early, but their execution took time. It turns out, too, that he can get too self-involved and way too easy on his own emotions behind the art. But one should never stop watching the struggle. After all, I had loved those, er, what do you call 'ems in the gallery just a few months before.

He refuses to show work from before his thirties. Like Barnett Newman, who burned early paintings, he thus began his career with Modernism's dream of rebirth. As a child in Nazi Germany, he knew the temptations of a false rebirth, too, a sacrifice for the common evil. As a student in East Germany, though, he experienced a society more cynical about repression. It shows in the calculated way he plugs away at realism all while treating skill as a mechanical device. It may show, too, in hand-painted color charts from his late thirties, as if to stare down the rules of painting once and for all.

His trademark styles turn up in the retrospective's first room, but on a small scale, like tryouts for a school play. An abstraction amounts to gray paint casually forced down with his squeegee. Richter also starts collecting and projecting photographs, so that he can trace them, perfect his photorealism, and then lose it in a blur. Is he hitting his stride or pretending? Doing both at once is half the game.

Even so, one has to wade through plenty of merely intriguing art. A hart in a landscape looks like the underlying sketch for a mural in any number of German traditions. But no, this one is supposed to look like a cartoon. Just in case one missed the point, a big swatch of background laps over the animal. Well, okay. That alone could make one long for abstraction.

The monumental color charts get one thinking longer. They pick up abstraction, but as something out of a reference book. They take on Pop Art's appetite for appropriation Robert Rauschenberg and his combines, but without an interest in a culture outside the production of color. They inspired the austere vision of color in Donald Batchelor or the Brushstrokes by Roy Lichtenstein. They also offer a handmade art stuck in its own self-reproduction. If they seem too clever by half, by now the cleverness can make one linger—to see how many halves it will take to make painting whole.

I had the same leery fascination with the early photorealism. A woman in shimmering fabric, all the gaudier for an electric blue right out of by Ross Bleckner, walks down stairs. Richter offers up his nude descending a staircase, only she wears clothes. Once again realism and Modernism become subject to representation. Newman said that "an artist paints so that he will have something to look at." Richter paints to sort out what he cannot escape seeing.

Distance learning

Richter pays tribute to Marcel Duchamp in his mix of Cubism with stop-action photography, only the photograph simply sits still. He recalls Modernism's aspirations to shock, only as fashion statement. A second version, in full color, of a woman without clothes may work even better. Instead of a nude, one has the awkward materiality of a naked human being. Works like these plays with a male viewer's comfort with art that puts women on display. No wonder it has influenced artists embedded in American pop culture, such as Judith Eisler.

Richter hints that art by itself tempts one to feel superior. One gets up close to catch a realist's or an expressionist's way with paint, only to find blue haze. One steps back, the studied connoisseur, to watch it come into focus and to assume the sublime dimensions of art, but of course it never does. One has nowhere left to stand, but the work's temptations remain. These paintings connect desire to distance. And Richter keeps returning to voyeurism and personal history.

A woman's close-up has the bland quarter turn of a yearbook photo, as perhaps it was. A student—of goodness knows what—spreads her crotch. A wall-sized series blows up Germany's past, in faces clipped right out of an encyclopedia. The Modern arranges these by the stairs to the exhibition's second floor, as if daring visitors to look back to something left behind. But Richter never loses his fascination with distance. He makes a realist like Close seem positively at home with brushstrokes.

Gerhard Richter's Lesende (Reading) (private collection, 1994)When Richter addresses Germany, he means his own life, too. It could represent anyone's need for a past to call one's own. In my favorite, Uncle Rudi, who died in World War II, stands before a wall, wearing his Nazi uniform and a broad grin. He looks like a man at his own firing squad. The foolish smile has the warmth of a dear, lost relative. It has all the naiveté of a young man about to discover the reality of Fascism and war.

What helps it go beyond the simply clever is a growing need to engage the present as well. I felt it in the blurred vision and then the return to abstraction. If felt it in bright color spattered as if released from a long, brooding captivity. I felt it, too, in photorealism's turn from the reference books. Clouds hover at an uncertain distance, all but in one's lap. Not even rain could offer release.

The clouds also mark a newfound temptation to go for greeting-card art. So, at times, does realism or the blur. He sometimes forgets how much he needs the quotation marks to sustain the beauty. A pair of candles blends a momento mori with the artist's most polished, richly colored illusion. A profile of his wife, Lesende (Reading), lingers over light falling on hair and clothes. She reads, a young woman with an inner world never free of Richter's desires.

Modernism's final irony

These late works border on sentimentality. A portrait of his child recalls the nostalgia of snapshots without the irony. Still, by then the show's cumulative impact has its own amazement. I myself found my desires on trial with Lesende, too.

In Richter's best work, he understands culture as neither safely at a distance or safely in one's heart. His series based on the Baader-Meinhof gang, dead or alive, comes a decade after the events. Its blur addresses the possibility of pinning art down to a single day of terror. It sees a Germany caught up in bitter struggles over past and present. It revives and represents a nation's debate just as troubled memories were about to die.

A beautiful, smiling young woman on her way to prison, the barely recognizable blur of a crowded funeral, the stark shape of a corpse lying face up—they all suggest the temptation to take appearances for salvation. But then art, too, long had the promise of a revolution. And now, with Postmodernism, it can bask in the allure of its own futility. Often as not, it does.

Modernism, people used to say, hinges on self-reflection. The avant-garde looks within, goes the legend, rather than to norms. Painting reflects on itself, its materials, and its making. Richter, in contrast, may well epitomize the postmodern artist. You know, the glib sort eager to give it all an extra twist. Or does he?

He looks outward, but to reflect on Modernism as part of his own past—and a larger, contested past as well. And he does so without ever forgetting that Modernism did the same long before. It makes for an art at once meditative and showy. He begs for a critical spirit unable to let the present moment die. He asks to be considered a past master, but at the risk of having mastered only what he has left behind. He risks, too, a present past the point of mastery.

Beauty and irony, it turns out, are at odds, but in the sense of an old couple who have fought for so long that everyone around them has ceased to notice. In their own crazy way, they get along just fine. And see: metaphors pop into the experience of this art whether one will or no. That is the beauty of art ever since Edouard Manet—and its final irony.

Postscript: reeling in Richter

I like Op Art as much as the next person, but it has never once had me reeling. Gerhard Richter's STRIPS are something else again. From the moment I saw them, a full decade past his New York retrospective, I was reeling in color, in paintings as much as six feet tall and nearly twenty feet across. I was reeling in patterns, an untold number of them, made from more than eight thousand striations running the full length of a painting. I was reeling in a lame effort to understand them, everything from the medium to the process to the mirrorings and divisions. Besides, up close I truly was reeling, to the point of sucking in my breath to keep from falling, at once dizzy and deeply unsettled in my stomach.

That may not sound like a compliment: this art makes me sick. But you were speaking figuratively when you last that said, and no one does more to take art's metaphors apart than Richter. No one else has a way of pushing virtuosity to the point of banality and banality to the point of virtuosity. No one else, too, has long moved so easily between photorealism and abstraction—or between versions of abstraction based on the artist's hand and on color charts. And sure, put all those together and one has a decent working definition of Op Art on steroids.

Make that digital steroids. Even after Op Art's inclusion in "Ghosts in the Machine," the huge survey of technology in art down at the New Museum, it seems by comparison hopelessly low tech—not to mention obsessed by illusion while all but indifferent to pattern and color. Richter started, cleverly enough, at the opposite extreme from them all. He began with one of his squeegee paintings from 1990, a series made by hand by dragging across a largely gray surface, the immersive variations in color and texture more or less taking care of themselves. Then he digitally slice, diced, and mirrored it, until he had by his count four thousand new patterns, a great deal of apparent regularity, and a whole series of entirely unique prints.

For the technically inclined, he folded the original over itself, joining mirrored halves. Then he repeated that mirroring, division, and merging again and again until the factors of two in the fractions approached five thousand. He was not satisfied either until the results neared the absolute regularity and impersonality of narrow stripes, combined with the unpredictability of their width and colors. Finally, in a process called Alu-Dibond, he turned them into digital prints on aluminum-based metal sheets, behind Perspex. While scale has a great deal to do with their success, so does the combination of translucent and reflective surfaces. Even in smaller works, the intense colors and ample white stripes can induce at least mild nausea.

A single other work, a freestanding frame holding six parallel sheets of glass and first realized in 2002, pursues a related interest. It assaults the Large Glass of Marcel Duchamp, the architectural ideal of the glass house, recently an inspiration in painting to Stefan Kürten, and the tradition of painting as a mirror or window. It does not do much for me, but it illuminates why the stripes are more than just another exercise in geometry from, say, Kenneth Noland or Gene Davis. One does not have to choose between the meditative glow of oil painting or the metallic sheen of aluminum. Painting, appropriation, and technology may seem like contrary extremes. For Richter, they are as necessary, stable, rigid, and discomforting as the extremes of a three-legged school.

New media have let something loose even as he turns eighty—and as he prepared for a more recent Tate retrospective. The gallery quotes Benjamin Buchloh, who argues that he can thus reflect critically on dehumanizing and all-encompassing technology without pretending to a purer past, in nature or in art. Fair and insightful enough, but Richter was always showing how to reinvent himself by quoting a past one would just as soon forget, especially in postwar Germany. No one more embodies what that postmodern paradox: make it new, and it it still longing for Modernism, but stay put and one is still in the past. Call the results beauty or just conceptual art, but one way or another, I am reeling.

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Gerhard Richter's retrospective ran at The Museum of Modern Art through May 21, 2002, and his show a few months before at Marian Goodman through October 27, 2001—where he later made one dizzy through October 13, 2012.


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